Public Administrator’s Approach Draws More Scrutiny

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When District Attorney Tony Rackauckas fired Todd Spitzer last month, the stated reason was that Spitzer, the senior deputy district attorney, overstepped his bounds by aggressively inquiring about a case being handled by Public Administrator/Public Guardian John Williams.

But since the firing, at least as many questions — if not more — have been raised about whether Williams is overzealous.

Bill Mitchell, a former chairman of OC Common Cause, stood outside Williams’ office a couple of weeks ago and urged the Board of Supervisors as well as California Attorney General Jerry Brown to dig deeper into how Williams handles the estates of deceased people and those living who courts have determined cannot manage their estates on their own.

He points to Ruth Hull-Richter and her 92-year-old mother, who are fighting Williams’ attempts to control the elder woman’s estate.

The crux of Mitchell’s allegation is that in trying to keep his agency afloat during hard budget times, Williams has become too aggressive in trying to step in to administer the estates of elderly people.

And according to sources at the county administration, Richter’s case isn’t the only cause for concern.

Another is called Tapout, LLC.

With an estimated worth of more than $10 million, it’s a clothing company associated with mixed martial arts whose founder, Charles Lewis, was killed last year when he crashed his Ferrari in Orange County.

Lewis had two children in Illinois, and after his death, the children’s’ mother sought control of the estate. But Williams jumped in, arguing to a local judge that Lewis’ estate was too complicated.

He won the argument and gained control of the estate. And according to fifth floor sources, he was boasting that the fees the case would bring in would essentially balance his 2010-11 budget.

This raised more than a few eyebrows, especially given that county budget documents show that Williams had budgeted a large swing in his finances, soaring to $2.5 million from $1.9 million.

But then a state appellate court reversed his stewardship, returning the estate to Lewis’ children.

“Children are second in the order on the priority list, compared to the public adminstrator in 16th place,” read the May 2010 appellate decision.

Williams argued to the court that despite the line of authority, California’s statute allowed him to leapfrog over the family.

There’s no indication that Williams told budget planners that an appellate court had reversed his big money case, especially since that decision came two months before final adoption of the 2010-11 budget.

That leaves people like Mitchell openly wondering whether Williams got aggressive with cases like Hull-Ritchter in order to make up the difference.

Williams’ is an agency that was called “the Guardian of Last Resort” by a 2009 Orange County grand jury that severely criticized Williams for doubling the staffing costs of his agency to well over $1 million from a little over $500,000.

Those conclusions concerned county Supervisor John Moorlach, who initially lobbied for Williams to combine the appointed job of public guardian and the elected job of public administrator.

After the grand jury report, Moorlach apologized to county Chief Executive Tom Mauk and tried to reverse his action but lost on a 3-2 vote. Today, he says Williams’ actions frustrate him.

“What’s so glorious about this country is anybody can get elected. And they do,” said Moorlach, referring to the experiences with former Sheriff Mike Carona, who was indicted, and Treasurer/Tax Collector Chriss Street, who was found guilty of breaching his fiduciary trust, and now Williams.



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